Jonathan Goldstein’s collection of biblically themed short stories, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Bible, is a delightful look at the Old Testament.
I am an unapologetic fanboy when it comes to Goldstein, the host of CBC’s Wiretap and former contributing editor to This American Life, so it’s difficult for me to be impartial on the subject. But even after you discount my unquestioning devotion to the Montreal funny-man, the book is still an entertaining read.
The book, which rehashes 12 parables from the Old Testament, is a typical work from the fatalistic Goldstein. The stories within the book are interpretations of Bible tales as seen through the skewed and pensive lens of the author. The characters deal with their extraordinary circumstances in a way that takes into account the neuroses of modern society.
Listeners of his show will most likely recognize several of the stories, though the curse words have been reinserted since he no longer has to worry about pandering to CBC Radio One’s aging audience.
Goldstein’s primary focus is on humour. For instance, in the story of David and Goliath, David’s motivation is not to free his people or oppose the tyranny of the Philistine giant. He decides to kill Goliath because he believes that it would be “a highly original goof.” David’s inner monologue reads, “The little one kills the big one. Bonk. Death. That’s comedy.”
The tone of the book never strays too far from the pursuit of comedy but that doesn’t mean that the author loses sight of his source material.
Goldstein was raised in a Jewish family and his familiarity with the subject matter is obvious but the reader also gets a fair sense of his secularism. He treats the subject irreverently, making Noah — usually shown as a wise and forgiving grandfather type — a grumpy old curmudgeon who likes nothing better than to look down on the wasteful people of the world and whip his sons until they are holy.
That said, the stories are still faithful to their origins, down to the most minute detail. But since Goldstein is not bogged down by his duty to the religious morals of the stories, he can create new ones to replace the old ideologies.
Often the stories come out with a much more meaningful personal truth than the cautionary platitudes we are familiar with.
“Cane and Abel” becomes a story about loss and the pain of true devotion rather than being the creation myth of human cruelty. “Samson and Delilah” is less the tale of feminine wickedness and the dangers of vanity than a cautionary tale about the big blindspot that is love.
By planting emotions into these well-known characters, Goldstein manages to write tales that are at once touching, tragic and — most importantly — very funny.